It is odd to stand at an iconic place few can ever visit. There on Mount Suribachi where the American flag was raised over Iwo Jima, I am embarrassed to report my first thought on looking out across at the military airport we landed at that morning was, “I have to walk back there in the next two hours.”
Though the marines subdued the highest ground sufficiently to raise that famous flag just a few days after landing on Feb. 19, 1945, weeks of death and horror would follow as they struggled across the few miles to the other end of the island. Iwo Jima wasn’t officially declared secure until March 26. The last Japanese military personnel to surrender on the island did so in 1949, and one of those committed suicide on a return visit a few years later.
I was tired, having just walked from the airport and up the coiling road up Suribachi (built in just a few days by a navy construction battalion working under fire). Nor did it help that I spent part of the walk on the sulfurous dusty path under the tropical sun looking (OK, feeling) like a character out of a Quentin Tarantino film. But our pre-boarding instructions had been very clear: Men must wear dark jackets and ties. Something approximating Japanese funeral wear.
The dress code explains why were able to be there in the first place. All of Iwo Jima is a Maritime Self-Defence Force base and off-limits to visitors, Japanese or not. When the island (now officially Ioto) was returned to Japanese sovereignty in 1968 together with the Ogasawara islands, American access to the memorial at Suribachi had been a sticking point right up to the last moment. Some American negotiators had wanted access rights to be covered in the reversion agreement, and had envisioned a massive monument and an American flag flying year-round. The compromise was that access to the Suribachi was not mentioned in the 1968 U.S.-Japan Ogasawara Reversion Agreement of 1968 but promised in a side letter from Japan’s foreign minister. The Japanese had always objected to a permanently flying U.S. flag, which in any case would have required a permanent U.S. military presence just to maintain it. The Americans ultimately relinquished.
We Americans were thus there under the aegis of a memorial service for the war dead held near the invasion beaches below Suribachi. This was a somber affair, with high-ranking military officers and civilian dignitaries from both countries in attendance. Music was performed by a joint U.S. Marine-SDF band.
Some in our group, including several American veterans of the battle, now well into their 90s, as well as family members and descendants of the many now deceased attended this event. One of them, Roger Clemens said of his wartime experience in an interview in the Guam Daily Post: “I did what I signed up to do. I didn’t like it, but that’s what I did.” I liked him immensely.
While the veterans, family members and dignitaries were shuttled around in the few micro-buses available, younger tourists like me were told we could either go up Mount Suribachi — a 19-kilometer round trip on foot — or participate in the ceremony, but would not have time for both. We only had five to six hours on the island, a function, we were told, of Federal Aviation Administration regulations on how long the pilots of our United charter flights from Guam could stay on the clock.
Little of the war remained visible on the route to Suribachi, which had multiple water stations and guideposts manned by a mixture of U.S. marines and SDF personnel. Some of the numerous wartime tunnels hiding in the scrub were dangerous we were told, filled with geothermal heat that could quickly and fatally overwhelm the curious.
I thought the most beautiful place was the monument built by the Tokyo Prefectural Government on a bluff overlooking Suribachi. It was just off the path to Suribachi but marked only in Japanese and never mentioned by our guides. On Suribachi, U.S. military handlers actively shooed us away from another Japanese memorial.
This was surprising but understandable: Few in our party could read or appreciate what the Japanese memorials were about, and a few were focused on unfurling the Stars and Stripes and celebrating that hard-won victory of decades past. To the Japanese, though, Iwo Jima is still a mass grave, not a place of celebration. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the bones of 22,000 dead were interred in the island’s maze of tunnels and bunkers. As of 2016, 11,000 were still unaccounted for. A sign at the mouth of one tunnel evidenced a 2014 ministry survey for remains.
A long history of conflicting goals and sensibilities probably dates back to long before the Americans sought the right to fly their flag in perpetuity. When the Japanese were first allowed back on the island in the 1950s to retrieve the bones of the dead from wartime tunnels, they were shocked to find skeletons missing their skulls, a sign they, believed, of trophy hunting by the American occupiers. Those days are gone, but our tour organizer said in the past American visitors had included at least one person who drove golf balls from Suribachi, and another who had run past the memorial ceremony dressed in Spandex as if for a 10-km run. The United Airlines employees flown in with us to do the pre-return TSA screenings necessary for us to be able to land in Guam were surprisingly rigorous, and I sensed it was in part an effort to prevent us from taking back shells, fragments or other inappropriate souvenirs.
It was probably just bothersome to the Japanese to have us there at all. While the U.S. Marines who punctuated our trek with kind words and cold water presumably had access through the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement, Japan had to fly immigration and customs officials to just to process us civilians. I asked one of the customs officials sitting at a table in the SDF hangar where we did our pre-boarding if there was anything for them to do, given there was nothing dutiable we could bring in or take out. He said no, but customs law required them to be there.
We could take as much as we wanted of the famous sands of Iwo Jima, which is also the title of a 1949 film starring John Wayne. It was the only souvenir available and we were reminded it was “volcanic ash,” not “sand” or “soil” for customs purposes. We were also told the Japanese considered the sand haunted and were careful to shake it off before departing the island. The SDF personnel based there were said to have seen ghosts, too. I asked one of them if this was true and he laughed and said no, though his colleague sidled over and said, “Some people felt that they do.”
A time of life
The most striking thing missing from my trip to this place of death was any indictor that the island had once held life, had meant something to people other than as the stage for a flag-raising and a horrific few weeks of history. Iwo Jima, or “sulfur island,” was first christened with that name in English when surveyed in 1779 by the third expedition of James Cook. It was declared Japanese territory by imperial edict in 1891 and put under the titular administration of the Tokyo government (it is still technically part of Tokyo: One of the few civilian cars I saw there had Shinagawa plates). People started to move there immediately to mine sulfur, fish and grow sugar cane and other crops, despite the lack of any source of water other than what fell from the sky. The lack of water had tortured both the American and Japanese combatants in 1945.
Pre-war Iwo Jima came to have a civilian population of almost 1,200. There was a school, a policeman (with little to do, apparently), a shrine, a newspaper compiled from news gleaned from radio broadcasts, families spanning multiple generations — life. The foot of Mount Suribachi where the Americans stormed ashore was where the school graduation outing was held; the boys fishing and the girls cooking what was caught in a communal pot. The islanders drank shark meat miso soup and ate sushi made using rice flavored with lemon juice rather than vinegar. They had their own amateur brass band.
With the fall of Saipan came air raids, the threat of invasion and the buildup of the Japanese garrison and fortifications. The civilians were evacuated over the summer of 1944, dodging submarines and air raids but most males aged 16 had to stay help the military, preparing meals and acting as messengers. Only one adult male in each family was permitted to accompany the women and children to the relative safety of the mainland, in order to support them during evacuation. This imposed horrific choices on families, fathers having to leave sons behind. Of the 103 young men who remained on the island, 82 died in the battle.
After the war, Iwo Jima became part of America’s Cold War strategy. The ability to store nuclear weapons was another point of contention in the return negotiations. Caught up in grand strategic designs, the islanders have never been allowed to return. Even now they are only permitted a few brief visits a year. Those who grew up on Iwo Jima are almost as old as the veterans in our group. Within a generation all of them will be gone.
Perhaps it is for the best. The whole island is a visibly active volcano, with steaming vents and a sulfurous smell. The invasion beaches have risen 17 meters above sea level since U.S. Marines landed in 1945. In 2015, Iwo Jima was named as being potentially the most dangerous volcano in the world, with a high likelihood of erupting in the next century in a catastrophic blast that could unleash tidal waves and other destruction on Japan and other neighboring islands. Perhaps that would finally put Iwo Jima’s dead to rest.
It was a moving experience but I was glad to leave. My wonderful seat-mate had picked up some sand (sorry, ash) but discarded it before boarding, having heard an acquaintance speak of a child seeing nightmares after some had been bought home on a prior trip. I offered her some of mine, in case she had changed her mind but was declined. Our plane took off, and after the pilot circled the island a couple times so we could get a final look at Mount Suribachi. Then we turned and flew back … to life.
Colin P.A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto and primary author of “The Japanese Legal System” (West Academic Publishing, co-authored with Frank Ravitch). The views expressed are those of the author alone.
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